Authors: Jessica Hickam
I respond by handing over the unopened black letter I’m holding. “This is what I was thinking.” With that, I continue up the stairs. My mother follows me, but I don’t turn around, not stopping until I reach the back of my bedroom. The entire wall is glass, including the doors. Outside is my balcony. The piece of tape still hangs on the pane where I found the note. It was fixed so you couldn’t miss it.
It isn’t the first note I’ve received. In fact, I’m starting to build quite a collection of them.
I turn around and see my mother staring down at the note. Her face is pale.
On the back of the envelope, just under the seal, is a small, silver symbol. It’s an open circle that continues around and up with one swift line to create a lick of flame at the top. The circle is dashed through with two lines, slicing it into four pieces.
One word written in bold silver letters in the middle of the note. No name. A name isn’t necessary. We both know who sent the letter.
My mother is beautiful—tall and slender with fair skin, bright-blue eyes and deep chestnut hair that matches my own. She has this observant look behind her gaze. She never misses a beat—though I really wished she would, at least occasionally. She scans the letter, and I can see fear transform her face.
“Keeping me locked in this house won’t keep me safe,” I tell her, leaving the room to escape her terse gaze.
My mother, still staring at the note, turns and leaves the room, presumably to show the latest threatening evidence to Jeremy.
The letter is from The Revealed. Their notes started arriving four months ago on my eighteenth birthday. They’re taunting me with their warnings. It’s a game to them, and posting these letters is the way they prove they’ve already won.
It doesn’t matter that my parents live on thirty gated acres, with security patrolling twenty-four hours a day. Forget the security system that sends an alert every time a window is so much as tapped or a door nudged. The cameras around the premises shouldn’t even be wasting electricity, because they never catch anything on video that’s useful. And they’ve vetted everyone who works for us so many times it’s become a monthly routine.
No, The Revealed slip through every time, and yet I’m still ordered to stay locked inside this house for “my safety.”
No one can keep me safe.
The kidnappings started less than a year after the war ended and have continued for the past five years. There are over four hundred missing now. All of them eighteen when they were taken, and none of them ever seen again. They’re called the Taken Eighteen. No one knows why The Revealed are kidnapping teens, only that once the teens are gone, they don’t come back. There’s something weird about The Revealed, too. They have this ability—this way of making things happen that no one can explain. They’re able to make trees fall and lights flicker out. That’s why they call themselves The Revealed. Because they have some understanding of how the world works that no one else does. They’re able to tap into this somehow and abuse it to ruin the harmony our new nation is struggling for.
A lot of people think the Taken Eighteen are dead. It’s a good possibility. What would an organization of any kind be doing with four hundred teenagers? Parents say having one is hard enough.
I think there’s more to it than just a killing spree. The Revealed are too smart. There’s some higher aim here than slaughtering innocent people. They just have yet to clue the rest of us in on their motives.
But what do I know?
Not much, it seems, because everyone around me insists on telling me how to run my life. Since turning eighteen, I haven’t really been allowed to leave the house. My parents hired tutors who come to keep me occupied throughout the day. My schedule is strict. My parents are one of the “lucky” couples that are rich enough to justify locking their daughter indoors for a year. Between our mansion-sized house and my father’s reputation, it’s expected. Most parents with eighteen-year-olds view them as a prime labor force and send them to the factories out of sheer desperation.
My father wants to see this changed. I mean, so does the rest of the world, but he seems to be the only one with a vision and the right amount of charisma to carry the idea. It’s why he’s a good politician. He’s been vital during the reconstruction process following the war. His military background makes him the perfect candidate to step up to the plate in the country’s time of crisis. He’s big on reorganizing the states and allowing them to keep their democratic rights. People like hearing that in a time where everything they own—including their liberty—is at stake.
We’ve been reduced to the trembling sliver of colonies that was our nation’s beginning. The wastelands start just east of the border between Louisiana and Texas. The boundary line extends north, slicing between Tennessee and Arkansas, snaking up through the middle of Kentucky and Ohio, and ending in the center of New York. Everything west of the line is uninhabited. Sure, there are rumors that some drifters float past the line, never to be seen again. But the attacks came from the west, and pushed farther and farther inland until the East Coast was all that was left of the once-great nation.
Again, I was lucky. When the attacks began, my father was on congressional business in DC. My mother and I were with him like usual. If we’d been at our home in Arizona, we wouldn’t have survived the first attack.
Now my father is running for president, asking these newly reformed little areas along the East Coast to vote for him in the first election since the war.
It’s hard to believe that six years have already passed since that day when the ground came alive and the sky fell. Today, the clear, blue skies mingled with wispy clouds are a sight I thought I’d never see again. For months after the war, the sky was a pitiful shade of gray. It was like being trapped in limbo. Either humanity would crumble, or we would find a way to pick up the pieces. That gray sky hung over our heads, pushing down on us, taunting us with the helplessness we all felt.
During the war, no place was safe. My parents had considered sending me to Barcelona or Stockholm, since they had trusted friends in both places. Good thing they didn’t. There wasn’t a country on this planet that was left unscathed. The District of Columbia was considered a prime target for violence, but my father refused to leave. He said he had a duty to protect his country. He wouldn’t abandon it in its time of need. And he didn’t. Put that on the posters.
When the war ended, Americans were scattered. People became nomads. There were always hopeful rumors that certain areas were free from the bombings. People would evacuate on foot with dreams of finding a safe paradise. That wandering existence went on for years. But slowly, as it became clear the destruction was over, people began to set down roots again. Cities attracted people, and DC is now the most-populated of them all. So much so that the previous infrastructure couldn’t support the masses. Apartments were raised, stacked like LEGOs on top of one another until they towered in the sky. At least most everyone has a bed.
No one—least of all my father—knows what to expect with this election. All he has is hope and a handful of dreams on his side. His opponent, a man named Roderick Westerfield, has radical beliefs—he’s an isolationist and pro-military, spouting radical ideals about the importance of protecting our state at any cost via law and order. Only votes will tell which one the public prefers.
I walk onto the veranda and breathe fresh air, ignoring the men draped across the overhang installing chandelier lights. Immediately two security guards close in, their eyes trained on every move I make.
“Don’t worry guys,” I say, “I’m not going to leave the house. I just need some air.”
I’m under house arrest until my birthday next year, unless The Revealed take me first. I’m betting on The Revealed. With all the inky black notes I’ve been receiving, my odds of making it to nineteen don’t look good. But I’ve accepted it—come to terms with the prospect, unlike most of my peers. It isn’t like I’m really doing much living here anyway.
I lean over the railing and take a deep breath.
“Lilith?” my mother calls.
I hate when anyone calls me that, but especially my mother. It’s Lily to everyone else. Always Lily. I clench my teeth, “Yes?”
“Mr. Shieh is here for your history lesson,” she says, her voice rising to my room from downstairs.
By history, she means politics. By lesson, she means brainwashing session. Mr. Shieh doubles as an advisor to my father’s campaign. His instruction leans heavily to one side. It’s the side my parents want me to adhere to. Little gems of information like states should make their own decisions. Our Founding Fathers wanted the central government to have less control, and the people to have more say. The government should provide healthcare and education to all and use taxes to further these causes.
The lesson today is lost on me, though. It isn’t exactly a typical day, not that I usually have trouble drowning out Mr. Shieh’s declarations of democracy. But the house is buzzing with life. There are people everywhere. It’s why I chose today to try and leave. I thought maybe the cameras would miss me slipping out in the midst of the commotion.
Only two days from now, my family is hosting a celebration at our estate to honor the anniversary of the war’s end and recognize and appreciate our progress as a nation since that moment. At least, that’s how the invitation reads. While August 6 is the sixth anniversary of the war’s ending, it also means there are only about three months before the election. It’s a win-win situation. My father hosts the party, and gains support and positive press all in one night.
Electrical crews hustle in and out, hanging lights. Delivery personnel bring in flower arrangements. Chairs and tables are ushered in.
My father is out of the city on the campaign trail until the night of the celebration. I haven’t seen him in two weeks. The election keeps him busy, and the only reason to be excited for this event is because it means he’s coming home. This house always feels better when my dad’s here. He asks my opinion about his campaign. He wants me to edit his speeches. He cares about what I think. He’s the only one who seems to care about my opinions. My mother just wants me to keep my mouth shut and look like a lady. She’s always worried I’ll embarrass her.
After my lessons, I glance down over the railing to see my mother marshaling the press around her, arms gesturing in graceful, fluid motions, like a conductor. She’s allowing them to cover all the setup activity to give audiences just a taste of what attendees at this spectacular event can expect.
“Press will be stationed here in the foyer, so you can get interviews with the guests as they arrive.”
She leads them into the ballroom, which is on the west side of the house. It’s a breathtaking room with gold fixtures and rustic Italian tiles. It’s two stories tall. The second floor is open so guests can look down on the dance floor and orchestra. Large Grecian-style pillars support the second-floor balcony and decorate the room, providing a gazebo-like setting indoors.
“And over here is where the orchestra will play.” She sweeps a hand toward the corner. “It’s the local symphony and they are absolutely marvelous. An open bar will be located near the kitchen, over here. We all know how politicians get when champagne is offered,” my mother says, laughing lightly and bringing her hand daintily to her chest. “I’m kidding of course.”
The reporters chuckle along with her, passing each other looks like,
Isn’t she just the greatest?
One reporter extends her phone, which she’s using as a recorder. “Can you tell us what the campaign’s been like for your family? Has it been trying?”
My mother’s smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. She’s annoyed at the reporter’s too-eager stance. Must be someone new.
“Of course it has its moments,” she says and smiles, “but what job doesn’t? My husband and I have devoted our lives to serving our country. It’s all we know how to do, and we wouldn’t want anything else.” She goes in for the kill. “We know the nation feels the same.”
The journalists all nod in agreement. They are an elite group of nationally syndicated reporters chosen for this tour. They’ll all repay the favor by talking graciously about my family. Not that they don’t normally anyway. My father led the efforts to make television media possible again. These reporters all owe him their jobs. Jobs like theirs are considered rare—a real luxury in our current world. They won’t soon forget his work on their behalf.
My mother takes them outside and even leads them around the gardens. She shows them the rows of plush chairs being stationed where the fireworks show will close out the evening. She then shepherds them to the parking lot—that’s right, my house has a
and says goodbye.
She walks back into the house and her mousy event planner, Charlotte, flits around her, checking the RSVP list. My mother holds out a hand. Charlotte purses her lips and scrambles, handing my mother a stack of formal, sealed envelopes. They look like fancy wedding invitations. My mother sighs and paces across the floor. Charlotte follows closely behind holding the invite list. The soft click of my mother’s heels echo through the foyer.